The Reverend John Allison
1 John 5:9-13
May 16, 2021
Christ Church, Hudson
Years ago, I had a close friend who was many years older than me, more than twice my age as a matter of fact. He was the husband of a professor of mine and a weekly habit of playing chess together grew into a friendship that lasted through many years and several moves for us both. I remember him today because as he neared the end of his life he liked to talk about the philosophical aspects of death. I say philosophical because he was a professed atheist; religion never moved him in any meaningful way and yet he continually expressed a longing to know more, to live more deeply. The conversation I’m thinking of today, however, was as he pondered the value of the promise of an afterlife. “Maybe it makes sense,” he said. “After all, we all want to feel like we have something waiting for us, a reward, a promise.”
At the time, I couldn’t articulate what I found troubling about his statement but, intuitively, it didn’t match my experience. And now, I can say that it doesn’t even really resonate with my understanding of faith, even though in the popular imagination Christianity is often reduced to what one needs to do to get to heaven, or what one needs to believe. Indeed, there is often so much focus on the transcendent, on the heavenly, that the very real, immanent presence of the holy amidst us is overlooked.
Our reading from John’s Gospel today gets at this as Jesus prays for his disciples on the eve of his crucifixion. The scene is the Last Supper and he has just finished telling them that he is going away. The disciples don’t quite understand at that point the implication of all that he is saying but in his prayer we have his vision of what it means to be holy.
In the larger scheme of the liturgical season of Easter and in the fact that in the intervening ten days between Ascension and Pentecost—right where we are today—the disciples are without the Risen Jesus and still awaiting the Holy Spirit. There is a gulf, a void, and these words from Jesus, his prayer, delivered, on what for us was Maundy Thursday, offer the foundation on which the disciples are to build—the foundation on which we are to build.
Jesus prays, “I am not asking you to take them out of the world, but I ask you to protect them from the evil one . . . Sanctify them in your truth.” Sanctify them, make them holy. Sanctify and holy both share the same root and essentially it means to set aside or to dedicate to a particular purpose—in this case, to go into the world and love as Christ has loved. His prayer is to equip them to do his work, and to share in the oneness between Jesus and his Father in Heaven.
All too often, as my friend illustrated, Jesus’ teachings are spiritualized to the point that we forget that we are sent out, that Jesus’s prayer is to equip us for the here and now of the world around us. It’s in the here and now, in the present, that we begin to grow into the oneness that Jesus describes. Or, as he says, “that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.” That’s what he calls us to here, now.
The cross as we most commonly see it in the west, as we see it here, has a long vertical axis and a much shorter horizontal axis. Typically, we understand the vertical axis as representing our striving toward God and the horizontal as our duty to the world. What isn’t as commonly known, however, is that the cross existed in a somewhat different form in various pre-Christian cultures. It was known by different names but generally speaking it was simply a cross with each axis of an equal length enclosed in a circle. We often see this reflected in the Celtic Cross. The significance of this form of the cross is that the vertical and the horizontal are equal; our devotion to the heavenly is equal to our embrace of the created order, and that it is where these two intersect, where the immanent and transcendent dimensions of our experience cross, that we find equilibrium. This is the joy of which Jesus speaks that makes us complete.
Almost six months ago we celebrated the Incarnation—God came to us and took on human flesh in the person of Jesus. God with us. On this past Thursday, Ascension Day, Christ ascended bodily, in the flesh, to his Father in Heaven and left his disciples with a promise and a mission to love as he loves. This is not a mission looking upward to the spiritual realm but a promise that is realized today—now.
On Ascension Day, the reading was from the first chapter of Acts: the disciples stand gazing upward as Jesus ascends and two men robed in white, angels we are to presume, stand among them and say why do you stand looking up to heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” In the flesh, bodily, and he returns to us in the same way. If we fix our gaze too intently upward, we miss him here, now.
In our baptismal covenant we say we will seek and serve Christ in all persons. Christ is here with us—if we have eyes to see and ears to hear. The life of faith is a life that cultivates this way of seeing and this way of loving. Jesus’s prayer for his disciples, that they be protected, that they be united in his love, is a prayer for us. The disciples for whom Jesus prays are our representatives, and as he prays for them and sends them, he prays for us and sends us as well.
He equips us for this work in many ways, but most tangibly, in our sharing of his body and blood, in Eucharist, in Thanksgiving. One way of understanding what happens when we come to this table is known as the four-fold shape of the Eucharist. It’s an expression of Eucharistic theology that has somewhat fallen out of fashion but for me it’s still quite helpful. Indeed, it still very much expresses not only my experience of the Eucharist but also what I believe to be a means of living sacramentally, of engaging God’s creation with a grateful heart and participating in God’s divine action. It’s how we live into Jesus prayer that we are sanctified to do his holy work.
The four-fold shape is this: take, break, bless, give. At its most fundamental level these four steps represent the actions of the priest in celebrating the Eucharist. The priest takes the gifts of the congregation (represented by the bread and wine), blesses them, breaks them, and returns them, transformed, to the body of Christ. It’s simple but over the years, I’ve come to see this shape of the Eucharist as part of a larger pattern of living, what I have come to call Eucharistic living—living from a place of continual thanksgiving. What we receive at Eucharist, what we take, is blessed in our lives as disciples of Jesus, and in our various ministries, in the love we take into the world, we break it to be shared with the larger body, ultimately offering it back to God, with whom the process is always being made new. Through this process, we become, as the psalmist says, “. . . like trees planted by streams of water, which yield their fruit in its season, and their leaves do not wither.” What we do here, at this table, does not end here but is part of a larger pattern of living our lives faithfully and with thanksgiving for the love God has given us in Christ. The last verse of our gradual hymn says it well: “Seven whole days, not one in seven, I will praise thee. In my heart, though not in heaven, I can raise thee.”
Like my friend said to me so many years ago, we do like to feel we have a reward waiting for us; that’s our hope in God’s reconciling love and promise of eternal life. Jesus’s prayer, however, is not just about the future. His promise begins now, here, in the world to which we are sent. That’s the life of faith to which we are called and that’s the present in which Christ’s joy is planted. Amen.